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Source: cdn.movieweb.com
Source: cdn.movieweb.com
Source: cdn.movieweb.com

Robert Langdon returns with what seems to be an excess of reluctance and a distinct lack of energy for his third big-screen appearance since 2006.

It’s easy to see why the creative talent behind the film adaptations of Dan Brown’s successful novels decided to settle on Inferno for this year’s offering. The opening dialogue, spoken by impassioned billionaire Bertrand Zobrist (Ben Foster), is a stark warning: the planet is too crowded, we are reproducing too fast. Drastic measures, he feels, are required. I needn’t explain to you why this is all too relevant for us as viewers in 2016, but I will say this: if the rest of the film had matched the tone of Foster’s opening proclamation, I would not be sitting here writing with a look of mild disappointment on my face.

Being based on a novel, Inferno was at a narrative advantage from the outset, and although it did not hold the same captivating sense of urgency that gave life to The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons it would be a mistake to criticize the plot. Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) wakes up in a hospital with a nasty head wound and no memory of the past 48 hours, and is forced into a begrudging partnership with Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones) in order to retrace his steps and stay ahead of the host of interested parties that seem to know far more than he does. The action takes the pair across Italy and into the history of Dante Alighieri on a treasure hunt that unearths a plot to eradicate half of the human population. Being coerced as a viewer into second-guessing the memories offered by the protagonist is a great way to keep the plot moving forward, and in that respect, Inferno just about managed to deliver, making the most as it did of the uncertainty and deceptiveness that comes with an unclear version of events.

What niggled away at me whilst I was watching, however, was the sense that the wonderful puzzle-solving that makes Robert Langdon a likable character was remarkably absent from Inferno. Cast out in favour of chase sequences through the hidden passages of Florence’s Medieval architecture, any use of Langdon’s symbology qualifications felt a little forced, as though we were expected to accept the convenience of whatever amazing revelation solved the puzzle at hand. It would be remiss of me to exclude the occasional glimmer of ingenuity, however, and with Botticelli’s famous depiction of Dante’s Inferno at its core the film continued as well as it could with the tradition of finding needles in a richly cultural haystack.

Like its predecessors, Inferno makes sure to remind us all just how utterly stunning Italy can be; the majority of the action takes place in Florence, although a slightly gratuitous trip to Venice and suitably dramatic finale in Turkey lend a little of the globe-trotting that we’re used to from Mr Langdon as well. From the Palazzo Vecchio to the Hagia Sofia, the film remains as rich in historical locations as ever – it is just a shame that the tour guide voice-over that we are usually treated to from Langdon is largely subdued.

The plot is passably airtight; the setting, as culturally steeped as one would expect. What, then, is the  that slows Inferno to a limp? The blame, I feel, must fall on the cast, or if not them, then the script with which they had to work. It is sad to admit, but Tom Hanks is frankly looking tired, and is certainly too mature to be diving head-first into an historian’s answer to Indiana Jones; He tackled Robert Langdon with all the strength he could muster, to be sure, but I wonder whether his heart was really in a screenplay that offered as much compelling dialogue as a Charlie Chaplin production. His on-screen relationship with Felicity Jones was unconvincing at best, whilst Jones herself often pushed the stern intelligence of her character into what appeared to be boredom, and so it was something of a relief when their uneasy partnership was expanded by the addition of several supporting cast members.

The heroes of the hour were, for me, the most underused characters to grace Inferno‘s plot. Ben Foster’s transhumanist billionaire scientist Bertrand Zobrist could have stolen the show with his unusual vigour and borderline intriguing dialogue, had he spent more than 15 minutes on-screen; the same can be said for Irrfhan Khan, who portrayed the ruthless head of a private security company whose attempts at humour sat far more comfortably than any of those offered by Hanks’ character. With little to no character development, however, their elevated dialogue was wasted, their efficacious performances eclipsed by our sleepy protagonists; even Omar Sy, whose reputation precedes him, was relegated to a side-line antagonistic role and left a distinctly two-dimensional character with which to work. Sidse Babett Knudson, portraying the head of the World Health Organisation (and former flame of Robert Langdon), served to buck the trend a little, making the most of a role for which she was slightly unsuited and offering a better relationship with Hanks than Felicity Jones could.

Perhaps Inferno was the sequel that came too late, stirring into life muscles that had lain dormant in Tom Hanks for almost 9 years. I suspect, however, that the diagnosis is a little less forgiving: whilst the premise was sound, the execution was lacklustre, and rarely did I feel the knot of tension in my chest that either one of the previous two films were wont to offer. A thriller requires thrills, but with sloppy dialogue, uninspiring performances, and a severe lack of enjoyable distraction, Inferno failed to kindle anything more than a small candle.